Book Review: Brood

Brood, by Jackie Polzin, is a story that blends the joys and challenges of hen keeping with the evolving experiences of a middle aged woman living in Minnesota, USA. It is a bittersweet tale but never cloying in its depiction of life and loss. The writing is honest and to the point, a clear eyed take on the curveballs to be dealt with as time goes by. A hen keeper myself, I found the observations of the feathered ladies delightful. The author has captured the essence of the relationship formed when a small number of birds are kept, ostensibly for eggs, not quite pets but still individually cared for.

The nameless narrator is married to Percy, an academic. They have kept four hens in their back garden for the past four years. When the tale opens, Percy has applied for a job at a prestigious university in Los Angeles. If he is offered the position, the hens will have to be rehomed.

Through the bitter cold of winter, into spring and then the heat of summer, the challenge is to keep the hens alive.

“Life is the ongoing effort to live. Some people make it look easy.”

“The chickens don’t care about my gestures toward life in a traditional sense, but most of the time they don’t die, which is the most primitive form of gratitude.”

As well as caring for her home and hens, the narrator works as a cleaner. Her friend, Helen, is a real estate agent and needs properties polished to a shine to create the best impression for potential buyers. The narrator finds this work soothing, despite the memories it evokes of a terrible event suffered while doing the job several years ago. In certain important aspects, her life has not gone in the direction she desired and envisaged.

Chapters are kept short and direct offering snapshots of the narrator’s day to day life and her thoughts on issues she is faced with. The reader is offered glimpses of friends, neighbours, the narrator’s mother, and Percy. Readers will also get to know the personalities of the four hens.

“While there is no agreement on the subject of chickens and words, there is agreement that chickens speak only of the here and now. A chicken does not speak of the day before. A chicken does not speak of tomorrow. A chicken speaks of this moment. I see this. I feel this. This is all there is.”

It would be easy to seek out metaphors from the behaviour of the hens in this story but I preferred to read it as a straightforward depiction of the woman’s life and its constraints. She is practical and rarely prone to emotional outbursts. She feels deeply but is accepting of what she cannot change.

There is a recollection in the book that particularly resonated. The narrator views a painting in an art gallery that she had seen several years previously but reacted to quite differently then. It offered a reminder that the lens through which we look at the world will always be coloured by ongoing personal experience, that little of what we do or say can ever be entirely objective.

Although lightly told there is a depth of feeling in the quirky yet accomplished writing that held my attention and made me care. The shadow of sadness in the narrator’s life is just one facet of the many practicalities she must deal with. The strength and calm acceptance she digs down for, to live in the moment as her hens do, is a quality I can admire.

An enjoyable read albeit one tinged by loss and the lasting impact of grief. The hens add heart and humour, as they do in real life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.

Book Review: Once Upon A Flock

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Once Upon A Flock, by Lauren Scheuer, is the perfect read for those of us who keep hens, those who are considering doing so, or those who are simply curious as to why back garden hen keeping has become so popular. It is a humorous account of the author’s decision to acquire a small flock of hens, and how she then came to love and care for her feathered friends.

Illustrated throughout with photographs and sketches it is a visually appealing book as well as being an entertaining read. It also provides some great insights into the challenges that keeping hens presents.

The adventure begins when:

“one day, totally without warning, Sarah grew up. She retreated to her room and began morphing into a teenager – the sedentary, electronic type.”

Having lost her outdoorsy playmate, the author decided that her daughter’s place in the garden could be taken by chickens. Lauren already had a chicken keeping friend. She also had impressive carpentry skills so could make her own coop. When I was contemplating my own hen keeping adventure the initial cost seemed the biggest hurdle. Lauren could offset this by making everything from scratch.

Her initial flock were purchased as day old chicks which Lauren raised inside her house under a heat lamp. When the cute and fluffy chicks had grown and developed enough to become feathered they were relocated to the yard. Lauren describes how she regularly moves them to fresh ground, and keeps them safe while they free range. Training the family dog not to attack the birds was just one of the challenges she faced.

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Over the course of a couple of years she deals with sickness, changes to the pecking order, re-homing, a broody hen, death, and the integration of new birds. There is also a proliferation of eggs, extremes of weather, and the need for hen sitters whilst on holiday. The book reads like a story but manages to cover the basics of looking after a back garden flock in a useful but always amusing way.

Chickens each have their own quirky little characters and are great company in the garden as well as being entertaining to watch. Lauren obviously adores her birds, but she doesn’t shirk from describing the difficulties they can present.

The writing flows and the illustrations help bring each new challenge to life. This book was a pleasure to read and I will be recommending it to all my chicken keeping friends.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Souvenir Press.

Lauren blogs about her chicken keeping adventures over at Scratch and Peck.